Lilting has a sturdy and emotionally resonant premise for a modern romantic melodrama. Junn (Pei-pei Cheng) is an older Cambodian-Chinese woman living in a retirement community in London who’s given to reliving talks with her recently deceased son, Kai (Andrew Leung). In these conversations, mother and son argue, gently but pointedly, over Richard (Ben Whishaw), Kai’s live-in “friend,” who the mother feels has displaced her. Initially, Junn strikes you as a remarkably hip and tolerant parent, despite her understandable neediness, until it’s revealed that Kai and Richard’s obviously romantic relationship isn’t apparent to her. (It’s tough to tell whether Kai’s fooling his mother or himself, or if Junn’s fooling her son or herself, though it’s probably all of the above.) Kai arranged for Junn to stay in a home, rather than allowing her to live with him and Richard, out of fear of outing himself, which ironically placed her in a position that resembled his own: They were both rendered adrift and alien in the presence of their loved ones. Junn appears to have resigned herself to living her remaining life in this tortured, irresolute past, until Richard comes knocking, determined to shake her out of her rut as an act of belated, transferred atonement.
That information is promising, but it’s largely subtext for a story that doesn’t exist. Lilting doesn’t have any momentum or any sense of ambiguity, once the setup has been established. It’s a “healing” movie in which we’re meant to wait patiently for Junn and Richard to inevitably grow together toward a place of mutual understanding. Refreshingly, director Hong Khaou doesn’t push the scenes in your face in the tradition of those shrill celebrity-studded family-dysfunction movies that surface every Oscar season; he exhibits taste and tact, and those qualities aren’t to be taken for granted. But the film has too much taste and tact, and it’s too reliant on your determination to like it for its nourishing, all-inclusive theme of social displacement, whether it applies to people of an inconvenient age, race, nationality, or sexual preference. There’s very little drama because that idea, as articulated here, is uncomplicated and inarguable. This film suggests a superficially hermetic sketch of a Sirk or Ozu drama that’s been leached of the challenging social textures that acknowledge the insidiously accommodating easiness of living with prescribed prejudices.
Lilting has a big ace up its sleeve, though it’s eventually revealed to present a weird sort of problem that backfires on the film. Whishaw projects that sense of emotional translucency that was so striking in his performance in Bright Star, fostering your explicit awareness of Richard’s vulnerability without holding back or cutting poses. The actor doesn’t play grief in the usual fashion that likens it to a perpetual fugue state; he allows you to see the waves of hope and despair that wash over Richard seemingly on a minute-by-minute basis.
But Cheng doesn’t forge a similar connection with the audience, and the contrast in the two lead performances proves to be quasi-disastrous. That’s partially the point, as Junn’s a closed-off traditional woman in a foreign land who expects her ways to be minded. Cheng, however, doesn’t give you any more than that; she doesn’t have anywhere near Whishaw’s range of expressiveness, and so it’s hard to sort the intentional communication issues that drive the story from the potential limitations of the performance. The film inadvertently pits you against Junn, who, despite her own obviously considerable pain, often appears petty, pitifully self-absorbed, and often willfully oblivious to the fact that every other character is basing his or her actions solely around her wants. Intellectually, you empathize with Junn, but she’s a bit of a stiff, and Richard is so much more present that you want to tell her to piss off. Lilting’s centered on the wrong character, leading you to feel trapped with someone who lacks the stature to fill a film, while more interesting characters escape your attention on the periphery.